Saving Coral Reef WorldwideThe first meeting of the Coral Reef Initiative Task Force wrapped up Tuesday, October 20, in Biscayne National Park, Fla., with a comprehensive set of programs and new partnerships formed to address problems facing our nation's coral reef systems.

"The meeting of the Task Force marks a turning point in ocean conservation and in how we respond to this critical threat of coral reefs in decline," said Commerce Department Deputy Secretary Robert Mallett. "We have formed powerful new partnerships that bring together scientists, public interest groups and political leaders from throughout the U.S. island territories, states and ocean agencies in charge of maintaining our coral reefs. We are discovering how many assets we have when we work together."

The Task Force was co-chaired by Mallett and Department of Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt and included representatives from 11 federal agencies as well as those from Florida, Hawaii, American Samoa, U.S. Virgin Islands, Puerto Rico and the Northern Marianas Islands.

"It's clear from this meeting that coral reef problems are many and complex. But we leave here with a road map for progress," Secretary of the Interior Bruce Babbitt said. "I'm asking all of us to roll up our sleeves, step to the edge of what's possible and then push on beyond."

According to scientific testimony at the meeting, up to two-thirds of the world's global reefs are currently in decline or threatened. The importance of coral reefs as a multi-billion dollar economic engine for tourism; as a spawning round for commercial fish species; and as a source of new life-saving medicines makes it vital that we address this decline in coral reef health immediately, according to Mallett.

The Task Force identified issues of major concern, including: overfishing of reefs; declines in water quality from urban and agricultural runoff and deforestation; lack of coordination with scientific research; and improving methods to restore damaged reef areas. The Task Force agreed to form working groups to form specific strategies to deal with these issues on a large scale. The specific strategies will be reviewed at the Task Force's next meeting in the spring of 1999 and ready for implementation shortly thereafter.

The strategies will add to major programs announced Monday that will increase mapping of the coral reef tracts throughout the U.S. mainland and islands; specific efforts to improve water quality and reef monitoring; and grant funding for local conservation efforts.

The emphasis of the strategies and programs developed by the Task Force will focus on developing guidelines for sustainable use to ensure that the reefs remain economically and ecologically healthy. Central to all strategies is the inclusion of the U.S. Territory and Island states as they contain the vast majority of the nation's coral reef tracts, and have economies that are largely dependent upon ocean-based natural resources.


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